Tuesday, October 10, 2017

ALDS: Belief Isn’t Enough, Except to Astros

By Jeff Kallman

For a few moments, it looked as though Astros manager A.J. Hinch made a big mistake in the bottom of the fifth in Fenway Park Monday. With one out and one on for the Red Sox, he brought in Justin Verlander, his Game 1 starter and winner — who'd never thrown an inning of relief in his life until now.

Later, in the bottom of the ninth, it looked like Hinch made a mistake asking closer Ken Giles for a 6-out save when Red Sox rookie Rafael Devers stepped up to the plate to lead off.

Verlander threw Red Sox left fielder Andrew Benintendi a 2-2 slider that hung like a coat in a closet. And Benintendi hit it over the right field fence faster than that to give the Red Sox a 3-2 lead. Practically everyone in Fenway Park wondered if Hinch had lost his marble — singular — bringing Verlander in during instead of to open an innings.

And, with the Astros now leading 5-3, Devers ripped one off the low center field edge of the Green Monster, the ball caromed far from Astros center fielder George Springer with Devers going to the afterburners. He crossed the plate unmolested with the Red Sox's first postseason inside-the-park home run in 101 years.

But Verlander held fort just as Chris Sale, his Game 1 opposite, did for the Red Sox. At least, Sale did until Alex Bregman hit one into the Monster seats to open the top of the eighth to re-tie things at three. Then Red Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, brought in with pinch runner Cameron Maybin aboard, walked Springer and surrendered a tie-breaking RBI single to Josh Reddick in the bottom.

For Reddick it had to be sweet redemption. It was his try for what turned into Jackie Bradley, Jr.'s 3-run homer Sunday, when the ball banged off his glove into the seats near the right field foul pole, that helped send the set to a fourth game in the first place.

Kimbrel — the best relief pitcher in the American League not named Andrew Miller this year — looked like he'd hold it to a run until pinch hitter Carlos Beltran banged a double off the Monster to drive home what proved the insurance run. Former Met Addison Reed came in to get the third out, but Giles hung in after Devers finished his impression of the Flash and sandwiched a pair of ground outs around a strikeout.

Suddenly the Red Sox waving Mitch Moreland home on Hanley Ramirez's base hit to shallow left in the third hurt even worse. Moreland, who isn't even Wile E. Coyote on the bases, never mind the Road Runner, was out by five feet when Astros left fielder Marwin (the Magician) Gonzalez fired a perfect strike home to catcher Brian McCann.

One day after David Price — who started the year as a starter but ran into elbow issues and finally to the bullpen, where he shone considerably — helped save the Red Sox season with stout Game 3 relief, there was no more relief for these Red Sox.

The Astros just might become Yankee fans for once in their lives. If the Yankees beat the Indians at Yankee Stadium Monday afternoon, then again back in Cleveland, the Astros get the American League Championship Series's home field advantage. An advantage that didn't hurt them against the Red Sox this time around.

"Top to bottom, man," Verlander said, "these guys grinded against two of the toughest competitors in this game in Sale and Kimbrel."

Being in Fenway Park Monday, a day after the Red Sox destroyed them in Game 3, didn't seem to bother the Astros, either. They pecked their way to an early 2-1 lead, Springer scoring while Jose Altuve hit into a double play in the first, and — after Xander Bogaerts tied the game at one with a shot over the right center field fence in the bottom of the first — Springer singling home Yuri Gurriel in the top of the second.

The Red Sox got themselves handicapped early enough when manager John Farrell got himself tossed for arguing a third strike call with plate ump Mark Wegner, whose reputation is usually to be generous to hitters on inside pitches, to spare Dustin Pedroia the ejection after Pedroia struck out with the bases loaded and one out.

Replays showed the fateful pitch from Astros starter Craig Morton in about the same spot as the third strike at which Bradley looked one batter sooner. Farrell took it for the team and bench coach Gary DiSarcina — thought to be a managerial candidate in his own right — took command but Bogaerts flied out to right to strand the pads full.

Morton and Red Sox starter Rick Porcello — just what was a guy who went from Cy Young (2016) to sayonara (2017: 10-17, 4.65 ERA, 4.60 fielding independent pitching), practically, doing starting a game the Red Sox absolutely had to win, anyway? — were both gone early.

DiSarcina lifted Porcello after three and went to Sale. After Benintendi teed off, Verlander got two outs to close the fifth and pitched two more innings of absolutely spotless relief. Sale pitched a pair of three up/three down innings, shook off an infield error allowing Gurriel aboard in the sixth, and ducked a pair of base hits in the seventh.

Then Bregman tied it up on Sale's dollar and it made a hair-raising game into a battle of the bullpens that proved even hairier.

Whether it meant the last game of Farrell's life as the Red Sox manager — he took them to a World Series ring in his first year, survived two bottom finishes, and won back-to-back American League Easts only to be shoved out in postseason round one each time — is up for speculation now.

Ramirez fired his team up for Game Three by carrying a sign, "Believe in Boston," out to the foul line during pre-game introductions, then going 4-for-4 to help the Red Sox smother the Astros in the game, 10-3. It turned out that the Astros believed in themselves more come Monday. And, in something bigger.

"The city of Houston is still rebuilding," said Hinch amidst the postgame celebration. "It's easy for us to look in the rearview mirror and think that the hurricane is over (but) the rebuild is not going to stop for a long time. We want to win for them, we want to win for us, we want to win because we showed up in spring training to try to win a World Series."

Whether the Astros go to the World Series from here may depend on whom they face in the LCS. They may have a better shot against the Yankees, against whom they were 5-1 on the season. But whomever they face, going to the World Series may also depend on whether the Astros have a few more hair raisers in their repertoire, too.

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